Ambitious Nairobi Man Finds Breakthrough in Nanyuki

  • A street in Nanyuki town.
    A street in Nanyuki town.
    Imran Otieno
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  • When John called me in the middle of the night and told me to meet him in Ngara at dawn the next morning I knew it would be a story for the ages.

    Sadly, my curiosity far supersedes my common sense so I said yes...grudgingly. As a rule, I have placed John under the list of people who 'Add Material to My Memoirs'. That's the only way to think of him in any case, or well, at least if you want to remain prepared that is. Because John, well, John is as strange a character as they come.

    Life grabbed John by the waistband of his jeans and dragged him - mercilessly - along.

    Or at least that is how it has seemed to me for all the time I have known him. And 20 years is a long time to know a person. In ten years you can watch the hair start to flee from the edges of the scalp, the kilos curdling into a firm round ball at the belly, and for the almost-imperceptible hardening in the eyes that comes with age and the creeping anting of cynicism.

    But not John. Oh no, John over those years has remained stubbornly the same: built like a tree trunk, with warm milo-colored eyes and deep laugh lines - because that's one thing he will not spare: laughter. Big-belly laughs that shake and tumbles out of him like a small flood.

    Recently, John has developed an obsession with documentaries. Creating them, telling them, capturing what for him is the line between the creative and the truth.

    “Documentaries,” he tells me, “are the purest form of storytelling.”

    John is not one to get into anything half-heartedly. Over the past few months, I have been pulled into his world, watching all sorts of documentaries, Chasing the Sun to Baby God, and, most recently, his fascination has settled on Maisha Mkanda. He has rewatched episode after episode, studying it for technique and visuals while thinking through the story he wants to tell.

    Maisha Mkanda Streaming on Showmax
    Maisha Mkanda Streaming on Showmax

    On the morning of our Nanyuki sojourn, I was out of the house at three, said goodbye to my two cats who rarely saw me leave the house before ten. All John had asked me to do was carry sound equipment. We were headed for a shoot, inspired by Maisha Mkanda, but better, he claimed. Because he had found the most interesting character in the whole country. 

    I picked him up at his most recent location: a woebegone flat in the heart of Ngara that seemed to droop. He was weighed down by the kilos of equipment he carried: cameras, tripods, lights. And he was preoccupied all the same. He seemed deep in thought the way he always was when he had wrapped his head around a story and just couldn’t let it go.

    "This is the one, Molly, this is the one."

    We drove in silence: a silence imposed by John whose casual but firm refusal to answer my questions left me with little to do but watch the scenery go by as we drove. We didn't quite get to Nanyuki though, abruptly, just as we drove into Chaka, John asked me to take a sharp turn leading us off the road into a dirt path.

    He was visibly excited at this point and started double-checking that he had everything we needed for the shoot. We went deeper and deeper into farmlands and the houses bordering us to the left changed from a reluctant concrete and stone to wood to a struggling mixture of stone and wood until finally giving way to pure wood.

    It was at one of these wooden houses, formerly painted green, but now only existing in flakes of paint. John stepped out of the car and I followed suit. We headed towards the door, which was one strong gust of wind away from caving in - and knocked.

    We heard heavy footsteps coming through from the other side approaching the door and just as suddenly it swung open revealing a scrawny little man dressed in a faded yellow t-shirt and gray sweatpants. I was a bit underwhelmed, to be honest, given that we had driven all this way to meet him.

    I threw a sidelong glance at John who was reflecting the sun by the breadth of his smile.

    “Molly meet Ken. Ken meet Molly.”

    Then he turned to me triumphantly.

    “Ken is the military filmmaker...or he was, he's defecting and wants to talk.”

    I look again at the scrawny man, cast a glance around our surroundings, see the unmatched joy on John's face and tilt my head to the side. I have heard of tall tales before, but this one, this one takes it all. But who am I to stand in the wake of John and his -already-growing-fantasies of an award-winning documentary starring Ken, the wayward military photo-man.

    Anyway, just as well I sit in on this one, the pandemic had made life quite dull: if nothing came off it, at the very least it would make one great brunch story.